Hawaiian Electric seeks federal trial amid dozens of Maui wildfire lawsuits

Attorneys for Hawaiian Electric Company, who face dozens of lawsuits over the utility’s liability for the Maui fires, are trying to move the cases to  federal court and not have the trials set on the island. Most of the lawsuits claim that MECO either caused the fires when high winds hit downed powerlines, or didn’t do enough to prevent damage once the fires were burning.

MauiNow.com video
Video news report by MauiNow.com  

Maui’s power was out before the fires started — but then Hawaiian Electric switched it back on. In congressional testimony, President and CEO Shelee Kimura confirmed what many had already suspected — that the utility re-energized its lines just before the early morning fire took off. Honolulu Civil Beat reported that the power was already out in West Maui at 5 a.m. — caused by the hurricane storm winds on August 8 — and it could have stayed off if Hawaiian Electric had not decided to re-energize the lines.

Ignoring or re-prioritizing the danger, the company rebooted a tripped transmission line, in order to keep the power on to some customers in Lahaina despite the high winds and extreme fire danger. The power was back on about 6 a.m. and within an hour a downed powerline near Lahainaluna Road ignited a fire that was likely the origin of the firestorm that ripped through Lahaina and killed over 100 people. Numerous lawsuits have been initiated since then, and Hawaii News Now reports that HECO is asking the federal courts to try the case in Honolulu with a federal judge.

NASA image, Maui fires 2023

They argue that federal jurisdiction is possible because one of the defendants being sued is out of state.

“I don’t think that there’s authority for what they’re doing,” said Lance Collins, a lawyer for the wildfire victims. “And this just seems to be one huge waste of everybody’s time. It’s a delaying tactic.”

Collins doesn’t believe Hawaiian Electric is trying to avoid a jury made up of Maui residents — a logical assumption — because he says a federal jury would still be sympathetic to the victims. Hawaiian Electric argues that the federal courts have more resources for a case of this magnitude.

All the lawsuits are expected to be combined into a single trial.

Reuters, meanwhile, reports that Hawaiian Electric  is already advancing a plan to replace six of its fossil-fuel generators with renewable energy sources, which will add more around-the-clock renewable generation. The utility company has begun contract negotiations for 15 renewable energy projects, advancing toward Hawaii’s goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2045.


Maui agencies stall investigators

The Honolulu Civil Beat has reported that three county agencies on the island of Maui have been subpoenaed by the state attorney general’s office after failing to provide information needed for the state investigation into the August wildfires.

The hurricane-driven Maui firestorm was the worst fire disaster in the U.S. in over a century; the New York Times reported on August 13 that fatalities resulting from the Maui fires had surpassed that of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California; it was the deadliest wildfire since the 1918 Cloquet inferno in Minnesota killed hundreds of people. Both locals and experts were pleading with tourists from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere to cancel vacation plans and spare locals and emergency responders the drain on scarce resources. Hotels and other lodging options on Maui were scrambling to shelter evacuees and the suddenly homeless.

A local CBS affiliate reported that dozens of homes and businesses were destroyed on the western part of the island of Maui, the second largest and third most populated island in the state. HawaiiNewsNow reported that witnesses described apocalyptic scenes; residents said an overwhelmed fire force, fighting flames all day in powerful winds, could do little as flames ripped through and leveled most of the historic district of Lahaina.

Not quite four months later, the state investigation is focused on fire locations and a timeline of events, and it’s still lacking critical facts, according to the Fire Safety Research Institute, which was hired by the state’s attorney general. “Until that happens, this critical process cannot move forward,” said Attorney General Anne Lopez. Hawai'i Attorney General Anne LopezShe said some Maui agencies have cooperated with investigators, but that subpoenas were issued to the Maui Emergency Management Agency, the Maui Department of Public Works and the Maui Department of Water Supply. The Honolulu Civil Beat said it contacted all three agencies and got no response from any of them.

Mahina Martin with Mayor Richard Bissen’s office said the county has “cooperated fully” with the investigation but that the county has not shared everything investigators have requested. She explained that some items were submitted to investigators, about 20 more are pending, and another dozen require federal Department of Homeland Security clearance before they can be produced. She said investigators have finished more than 90 interviews of county personnel.

Civil Beat asked the attorney general’s office what information it is seeking through the subpoenas but they declined. In the aftermath of the historic fires, Civil Beat filed records requests with the Maui Emergency Management Agency — including text messages, emergency operations center activity logs, requests for assistance to the state and its continuity plan, and an outline of who is in charge if top leadership is absent, as was the case on August 8 when the fires started. MEMA has not provided any of these records.

A report by The Hill said the fires damaged or destroyed more than 2,000 structures and burned over 2,000 acres, according to FEMA records. The rebuilding could cost upward of $5 billion.

Other Maui agencies, meanwhile, have handed over requested information to investigators and the AG’s office. “We appreciate the cooperation of the Maui fire and police departments, and while we continue to work through some issues, their leaders and line responders have been transparent and cooperative,” Lopez said.

Long-term effects of Maui’s wildfires still unknown

The fires may have been controlled in Maui, but the fires that burned Lahaina will continue to affect the island in numerous ways.

Experts at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa explained the multiple long-term health and environmental risks during a recent webinar sponsored by the Hawaiʻi Public Health Institute. The webinar was focused specifically on addressing community concerns over remaining toxic chemicals and how people can protect themselves from exposure. There is also little to no precedent for the wildfire seen in Lahaina.

“While there have been large urban fires in other locations, such as Paradise, California, few have been related to hurricanes,” said Catherine Pirkle, an associate professor and global health researcher trained in epidemiology and health services.

Maui, August 2023

Another unusual aspect of the Maui wildfires is their proximity to nearshore tropical reefs. Researchers know very little about the health effects of exposure to compex chemical mixtures from wildfires like those in Maui. The contaminants released by the fire may enter the marine environment and could pose risks for swimmers and people who eat contaminated fish.

While the specific consequences of contamination aren’t known, researchers said the most at-risk populations for developing long-term health issues related to the fire are pregnant women and children, older or low-income people, those with pre-existing health conditions, and people at risk of work-related exposure.

The Hawaiʻi Department of Health and the EPA have already determined that particulate matter from the wildfires caused only low levels of air pollution. Additionally, volatile organic compounds were detected in only a small number of drinking water samples. Researchers offered health guidance to anyone planning to re-enter burned areas, saying they should wear an N95 mask that fits well, along with long sleeves and pants, socks, shoes, and gloves.

“Minimize disturbing the ash that has settled on the ground so that it does not enter the air or nearby waters,” the researchers said. “To reduce the take-home pathway of exposure, people who enter the impacted area should change their clothing before returning to their family members who are advised against entering the impacted area.”

The guidance follows the announcement by Maui Mayor Richard Bissen that he would be reopening all of West Maui — except the burned-out sections of Lahaina — to tourism on November 1.

Watch the University of Hawaiʻi’s full webinar here:

Deadline extended for Hawai’i disaster assistance

Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency

The FEMA deadline for private nonprofit groups and government agencies to apply for disaster assistance has been extended to October 25.

“The extension gives applicants two more weeks to complete their requests,” said James Barros, administrator of the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency (HI-EMA). “Many nonprofits have been deeply involved in the disaster response, but they’ve been busy helping the people of Maui to apply for these federal funds; the extension gives them a bit more time to seek these vital resources.”

Hawaiʻi Emergency Management Agency

The disaster declaration covering the August wildfires authorizes funding to reimburse and pay for protective measures and hazard mitigation, including fire mitigation and environmental and historic preservation projects. Private nonprofit organizations — including houses of worship and community groups — may be eligible for financial reimbursement for emergency protective measures, debris removal, or restoration of facilities.

Eligible organizations include those that have provided services during the wildfire response, or those that want to participate in recovery/mitigation efforts, including environmental and historic preservation.

“HI-EMA is the state agency that serves as the connection between FEMA and applicants for Public Assistance funds,” said Barros, “and our personnel can answer questions about the types of expenses and projects that may be eligible.”

To learn more about available grants, check the FEMA assistance page and the Hawai’i Emergency Management Agency site. For details, contact Brian Fisher with HI-EMA’s Resilience team at brian.j.fisher@hawaii.gov.

The Lahaina Banyan seems to have survived.
This is a DHS photo from Wikipedia.

Lahaina Banyan tree, DHS photo from wikipedia.
Lahaina Banyan tree, DHS photo from wikipedia.

The 2-acre Banyan tree in October 2014:
(by Nvvchar – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0)

Hawaiian Electric sees its first lawsuit

Shares of Hawaiian Electric fell more than 20 percent today after reports that the utility is considering restructuring as it faces numerous high-end lawsuits for its role in Maui’s disastrous wildfires. The company’s stock is down more than 73 percent thus far in 2023.

According to a CNN report, shares plummeted to 13-year lows on Monday after a class-action suit alleged that the Maui fires were caused by powerlines toppeled by strong winds. In a lawsuit strikingly similar to the Pacific Power class-action suit in Oregon, plaintiffs want the power company to bear financial responsibility for the deaths and destruction resulting from the utility’s failure to de-energize its powerlines despite ample warning by fire officials and weather experts about approaching extreme winds and related volatile dangers.

Hawaiian Electric“The past days have been devastating for Maui and all of Hawaii,” said Shelee Kimura, president and CEO of Hawaiian Electric. “We have seen human loss and devastation on a scale that’s difficult for our hearts and minds to process. Maui lost homes and businesses, places of worship and cherished historic places. My heart breaks over and over, alongside all of Hawaii, for the people, communities and aina of Maui.”

She added that the restoration efforts now under way are personal to the utility’s employees. “Hawaiian Electric will continue to be here in full force with hundreds of dedicated employees and partners from Maui, Oahu, Hawaii Island, Molokai, Lanai, and beyond. We are focused on restoring power to support our communities’ work to recover and build back.”

The lawsuit alleges that Hawaiian Electric Industries “chose not to deenergize their powerlines during the High Wind Watch and Red Flag Warning conditions for Maui before the Lahaina Fire started,” despite knowing the risks of igniting a fire in those conditions. At least two other lawsuits have already been filed against the company for its role in the fires that killed at least 111 people on the island and destroyed the town of Lahaina. That number is expected to rise, with as many as 1,000 people still missing.

Maui: worst fire disaster in the U.S. in over a century

The New York Times reported today that fatalities resulting from the Maui fires have surpassed that of the 2018 Camp Fire in Paradise, California, and now mark the deadliest wildfire since the 1918 Cloquet inferno in Minnesota killed hundreds of people.

The island’s fatality count has already hit 93, according to an AP report earlier today, and both locals and experts are pleading with tourists from the U.S. mainland and elsewhere to cancel vacation plans and spare locals and emergency responders the drain on scarce resources. Hotels and other lodging options on Maui are scrambling to shelter evahttps://youtu.be/OlV6sObu_Y0cuees and the suddenly homeless; well over 45,000 residents and visitors have departed Kahului Airport in West Maui since Wednesday.

Mayor Richard Bissen recorded a public message, and the Maui County website is loaded with additional resources. A Family Assistance Center is open at Kahului Community Center at 275 Uhu Street.

Maui CountyThe Maui Emergency Management Agency can help in locating unaccounted-for family members. People trying to locate loved ones also can call the American Red Cross at 800-733-2767.

“The collective resources and attention of the federal, state, and county government, the West Maui community, and the travel industry must be focused on the recovery of residents who were forced to evacuate their homes and businesses,” announced the Hawaii Tourism Authority today. Visitors are encouraged to change plans and travel to Hawaii’s other islands.

Gov. Josh Green said 500 hotels rooms will be set aside for evacuated locals, and the state is working with AirBNB to make more rentals available for locals. Another 500 hotel rooms will be reserved for FEMA employees; no word on whether interagency IMTs from the U.S. will be able to camp in tents as usual.

Recovery crews with cadaver dogs have covered just under 5 percent of the fires’ search area thus far, according to Maui Police Chief John Pelletier. “We’ve got an area that we have to contain that is at least 5 square miles, and it is full of our loved ones,” he said. He asked residents with missing loved ones to provide DNA samples at a county resource center.

Hawaii News Now reported that Gov. Green said this will certainly be the worst natural disaster Hawaii has ever faced. “I hurt to imagine the fear that went through people when a fire — really a hurricane and a fire — came through all at once,” he said. Their news conference is available online:    youtube.com/watch?v=zm_xx5peLJQ